The kindest cut

Ph.D. student receives $100,000 grant to create umbilical cord cutting device

By Allyson Fox

Margo Klar is developing a device to prevent umbilical cord infections in newborns.

Every year more than 3 million newborn infants worldwide die in the first month of life, with many deaths caused by neonatal sepsis that began as an umbilical cord infection.  UF student Margo Klar hopes to develop a simple solution to a big problem with the support of a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Using a rusty scalpel, placing the umbilical cord on an unsanitary table or using an old razor blade to cut the cord can all lead to umbilical cord infections in babies, said Klar, a doctoral student in the department of epidemiology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine.

Neonatal tetanus is a preventable disease that occurs mainly as a result of umbilical cord infection with spores of bacillus Clostridium tetani, which produces a potent neurotoxin. Infection can result from cord contamination during unsanitary delivery conditions, coupled with a lack of maternal immunization.

To address the problem, Klar came up with the idea of creating a simple ceramic cutting device called Ceramic Umbilical Cord Finger Scissors.

“My device makes use of materials that do not rust and are proposed to stay sharper longer and over repetitive use when compared to stainless steel,” said Klar, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in public health from Yale University.

Currently, several aid agencies distribute clean delivery kits to developing countries. The kits include a disposable scalpel, but in environments where resources are scarce, these scalpels are sometimes reused.  Klar knew her device needed to be affordable, stay sharp and be easily cleaned, even after multiple uses. She was among approximately 5,000 people to apply for a Gates Foundation grant in November 2010. Her proposal was one of 89 that received the Grand Challenges Explorations Grant Round 6. 

“The Gates Foundation looks at this as an opportunity to get a lot of good ideas moving in a positive direction,” she said.

Klar decided UF was the best place to pursue her research after meeting Mark Gold, M.D., chair of UF’s department of psychiatry and the father of one of her close friends from Yale.  

“I chose to bring my grant to UF because of the interdisciplinary environment it provides and then I found a supportive department of epidemiology for my Ph.D.,” she said.

Creating this device involves many different fields working together. Klar works in engineering and arts and architecture, and she conducts experiments with bacteria, emerging pathogens and meat sciences.

With a background in chemical engineering, emergency medical sciences, biology and public health, this project brought together different parts of her education. She believes the success of this device is all about tackling the small challenges. She pitched the device with a specific shape and look in her mind, but she said it is important to be open to new designs and materials.

“It’s not about the device, but it’s (about its) impact,” Klar said.

And she is excited to take on the challenge.

“It’s exciting being able to come up with a new technology that could potentially have a huge impact on the outcomes of babies in developing countries,” she said.

Klar is the first student at the university to receive a Gates Foundation grant and the department is very proud of her, said Linda Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., chair of the department of epidemiology.

“Margo is a very innovative thinker, and she pursues her ideas, which is how she got funded in the first place,” Cottler said.

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